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Geronimo’s bones

Is the famed Apache warrior still buried at Fort Sill, or were his remains stolen?

Ron J. Jackson February 16th, 2011

Thousands of tourists flock to historic Fort Sill each year to view the grave of Chiricahua Apache warrior Geronimo. Many even cross oceans to leave burnt cedar offerings, coins and other strange trinkets at his monument.

Geronimo’s name became forever etched in Western lore in the mid-1880s when he eluded 5,000 U.S. Army regulars in the rugged mountains of Arizona and Mexico with a handful of tribal holdouts. A series of close encounters with the rebel leader left soldiers to wonder if they were chasing a ghost. Finally, on Sept. 4, 1886, Geronimo surrendered to Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Ariz.

News of Geronimo’s surrender sent shock waves across a relieved nation. Yet the Apache warrior cleverly parlayed his infamy as America’s most notorious prisoner of war into a capitalistic venture that P.T. Barnum would have admired.

Throughout the remainder of his life, he sold the Geronimo name for a price — 10 cents for an autograph, 50 cents to two dollars for a photograph and so forth. Despite being a prisoner of war, he was permitted to appear in local parades, and in 1904 traveled to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis with the president’s approval and assurances he would be protected. As word of his presence in St. Louis circulated, orders soon began arriving by mail. One fair official commented to a customer, “The old gentleman is pretty high-priced, but then he is the only Geronimo.”

‘Death house’

Bullet-hole scars checkered Geronimo’s body by the time a Lawton undertaker placed the elderly warrior in a coffin 102 years ago. Once, Geronimo placed a large pebble in one of those deep pits on his upper torso, imitated the sound of gunfire and tossed the pebble to the ground.

“No, no,” he shouted to his guest. “Bullets cannot kill me!”

Death arrived ignominiously for the once proud warrior. On a cold February day, Geronimo rode into Lawton from his Fort Sill home, sold bows and arrows he made, and then coaxed a young man into illegally purchasing whiskey for him at a saloon. (American Indians could not be sold alcohol). Geronimo drank until intoxicated, and in an attempt to return home after nightfall, tumbled from his horse. Neighbors discovered him the next morning near a pecan grove, lying partly in water a short distance from his house.

He soon contracted pneumonia and eventually was taken to the post hospital — a simple rock structure known to the Apaches as “the death house” because so many of their tribesmen had died there.

On the morning of Feb. 17, 1909, Geronimo took his last breath. By his own account, he was 79 years old.

A day later, an elaborately decorated hearse carried Geronimo’s body.

A large funeral procession, featuring both Indians and Caucasians, trailed the hearse to the tiny Fort Sill-Apache Cemetery amid a cluster of leafless trees on Beef Creek.

Geronimo fervor

Geronimo’s popularity was mixed among his own tribe. By all accounts, he was respected as a powerful medicine man and fierce warrior, but many viewed his defiant actions as selfish. Detractors ultimately blamed him for the government’s persecution of the Apaches — a status that wouldn’t end until 1914. There were also those who frowned upon his bouts with drunkenness and failed attempts to embrace Christianity.

Even Geronimo’s eulogy proved a sad and poignant monument to his controversial life. Naiche, the Apache’s last hereditary chief, stood over Geronimo’s grave and delivered a powerful message lauding him for his loyalty and courage in battle, but said he ultimately failed as a man of peace by not accepting God. Naiche closed his talk by urging those in attendance to profit from Geronimo’s poor example.

Stories of grave robbers and whispers of reburials by loyal tribesmen have swirled repeatedly around the tiny cemetery since Geronimo’s burial that February. Some accounts claim his body was secreted away in the night and buried in his native lands in Arizona or New Mexico. One widely circulated rumor was that Geronimo was buried with all his possessions, including the more than $10,000 from his bank account. Although untrue, the rumor had legs.

Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief, was buried near Cache in 1911 and, in 1957, reburied at the Fort Sill Post Cemetery in Lawton. He was laid to rest in full battle regalia with a buckskin bag containing his favorite war bonnet and feathers, as well as a diamond brooch given to him by local cattlemen. Tribesmen stood guard over his grave for four straight nights, but four years later, thieves dug up his grave and stole its valuables.

Apache fears ran even deeper. “I understand his (Geronimo’s) grave was molested and his body took out and somebody else’s put in that grave,” said Christian Naiche, son of the great Apache chieftain, in 1958. “The Indians did it to prevent his being taken by the white people. They remembered what happened to Mangas Coloradas.”

No, no! Bullets cannot kill me!


Like Geronimo, Mangas Coloradas was a notorious Apache leader who left blood in his wake. Mangas surrendered to U.S. soldiers in January 1863, only to be tortured and shot to death amid dubious allegations that he was killed during an attempted escape. Soldiers severed his head, boiled it and shipped it to reputed New York City phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler for research.

The Apache people were angered and mortified by the desecration. They would revisit that anger in 1986 when news surfaced that members of Yale University’s Skull and Bones Society plundered Geronimo’s grave in 1918. An anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a Bonesman was sent to then-San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Ned Anderson, who had been lobbying to return Geronimo’s remains to Arizona. The writer alleged that Bonesman Prescott Bush — father and grandfather of the U.S. presidents — used an ax to pry open the iron door of Geronimo’s tomb, and then ran off with the warrior’s skull.

A photograph of the purported skull accompanied the letter, but the skull is most certainly not that of Geronimo, who was never laid to rest in a tomb. In fact, Geronimo’s grave wasn’t even marked in 1918. If Bonesmen did indeed steal a skull at Fort Sill that year, it likely belonged to someone else. Yet the myth survives to this day.

Geronimo died as a prisoner of war at age 79 on Feb. 17, 1909, at Fort Sill.

Tenacious Sgt. Swett

Everyone loves a good mystery. Master Sgt. Morris Swett was no different in that respect when he first arrived at Fort Sill in 1915 to help establish a new artillery library.

Swett quickly became enthralled by Fort Sill’s history and lore, and recognized the historical significance of locating the exact spot of Geronimo’s grave. His quest to find Geronimo’s final resting place thus became an obsession. Over the next 15 years, Swett questioned anyone who might know the truth. He interviewed former post officers and enlisted men who were stationed at Fort Sill in 1909, and befriended many of the Apache people.

Still, despite their fondness of Swett, the Apaches closely guarded the truth of Geronimo’s whereabouts. By 1930, Swett appeared resigned to the fact that the location might forever remain a mystery.

“A relative of Geronimo has promised me that he may disclose the secret to me after the death of his aged mother, who is now more than 100 years old, but not until then,” he told The Oklahoman in February 1930.

Swett’s fortunes changed dramatically in the coming months. An elderly Apache woman named Nah-thle-tla called on him to reveal a secret.

Nah-thle-tla was a first cousin to Geronimo and the oldest living tribal member at age 107. Sensing death was near, she told Swett she wanted Geronimo’s grave marked and protected. At the time, the Apache cemetery was full of unmarked graves and overgrown with weeds.

On April 3, 1930, Swett accompanied Nah-thle-tla and Geronimo’s nephew, Arthur Guydelkon, to the Apache cemetery. Nah-thle-tla gingerly walked over the uneven prairie.

“She was old and feeble, and could not see very well,” Swett later recalled. “But she walked straight to the grave, looked at several old trees and landmarks for assurance, then pointed down and nodded simply.”

Nah-thle-tla went to the exact spot secretly shown to Swett nine years earlier by Apache Belle Nicholas, who witnessed Geronimo’s funeral and later discovered the vandalism of his grave. Nicholas told Swett how she visited the cemetery in September 1914, only to find Geronimo’s unearthed grave — an obvious attempt to recover gold trinkets and other valuables.

Nicholas saw Geronimo’s remains still in the open grave. She immediately reported her discovery to tribal leaders, who agreed to refill it and intentionally spread rumors that Geronimo’s body had been moved. The ruse even included the digging of fresh graves to throw off the curious. In the end, the ploy probably worked better than expected.

Today, the truth of Geronimo’s grave is but a shadow to the mythology that towers over his legend. Geronimo, like the mystery, simply refuses to die.

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